Danforth urges Republicans to end Christian right's influence

Friday, September 22, 2006
Former Missouri Sen. John Danforth with his latest book "Faith and Politics" (AP Photo/James A. Finley)

WASHINGTON -- Is the Christian right the Republican Party's real political base or have conservative Christians taken over the GOP, forcing the party to meet their demands?

For former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, the answer became clear when the Republican-controlled Congress intervened in the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who died after her husband won the right to remove her feeding tube.

"The effort to keep Terri Schiavo alive artificially became a religious crusade and Republicans in Washington responded to a core constituency, even though it meant abandoning traditional Republican philosophy," Danforth writes in his new book, "Faith and Politics: How the 'Moral Values' Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together."

Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest and a lifelong Republican who represented Missouri for 18 years in the Senate, argues that the religious right has focused its agenda on divisive issues that polarize Americans and create a stalemate in government.

These issues, such as abortion, gay marriage and the use of religious displays on government property, are "of little intrinsic importance except as wedges" to energize the base by pitting "people of faith" against their perceived enemies, Danforth says in the book, in stores now.

"If Christianity is supposed to be a ministry of reconciliation, but has become, instead, a divisive force in American political life, something is terribly wrong and we should correct it," Danforth writes.

He urges moderate Christians to be more assertive in spreading the message of reconciliation so they can rebuild the political center and abide by Jesus' instruction to love thy neighbor as thyself.

Danforth first denounced the influence of the Christian right in a series of columns and speeches more than a year ago. The book is an effort to generate more discussion about the role of religion in American politics.

While he acknowledges that Republicans believe they can win elections by appealing to the Christian right, Danforth says voters ultimately will turn against those tactics because they don't want the GOP to be a religious political party.

Since he retired from the Senate, Danforth has served as special envoy to Sudan in 2001 and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 2004. Drawing on his experience trying to broker peace in war-torn Sudan, Danforth says Christians can find common ground by working with religious leaders to help end conflicts around the world.

Back in private law practice in St. Louis, he is waging a passionate and personal fight to support embryonic stem cell research and its potential to cure ailments like Lou Gehrig's disease, which claimed the life of his older brother, Don, in 1999.

He has taken a leading role in championing a Missouri ballot initiative this year that would protect all federally allowed stem cell research in the state. The measure is opposed by many church and anti-abortion groups.

"No theologian, however learned; no church council, however authoritative; no bishop or archbishop, however holy, will ever persuade me that protecting a frozen embryo that will never see the light of day should take precedence over my brother Don," Danforth writes.

Critics such as conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh have accused Danforth of trying to push Christian conservatives out of politics. But Danforth says he doesn't believe politicians should check their religious beliefs at the door.

"There is a difference between being a Christian in politics and having a Christian agenda for politics," Danforth writes.

While Danforth's litany of complaints may make readers wonder if he has considered leaving the GOP, Danforth said in an interview that he has never questioned being a Republican.

"I believe in the basic principles of the Republican Party and I have never wavered from those basic beliefs," Danforth said. "But I just don't believe that any political party should be a sectarian party."

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